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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Deborah Strod and Humanist ritual

Deborah Strod asks, Should Humanists Do Ritual?
(c) The New Humanism.
Scientist, health consultant, and social worker Deborah Strod has written a wonderful article for The New Humanism entitled, "Should Humanists Do Rituals?" After sharing various ritual ideas and examples, Strod says that, for her, what makes ritual special is the repetition and predictability of it. She claims that we need such "primal cues" in the various settings of our families and community lives. Here she sometimes slips into speaking about traditions rather than rituals, but then these two concepts have much overlap.

The article reminded me of the time I asked a Buddhist monk why he bowed to the statue of Buddha. He said the statue was just a piece of wood, and they don't even worship the person of Buddha in any case. Rather, he said, the reason he bows to the statue is not to give anything to the statue, or even to what it represents, but rather because of what it does to him and in him. He said that it helps him focus his mind, attention, and thoughts on the teachings he is about to practice. From that day on, whenever I enter a Buddhist temple or begin meditation, I bow to a symbol of the teachings on which I'm practicing. This realization about ritual also has made me think about how I behave and think when I am among people who pray. I do not pray, myself, since I do not hold a belief that communion with any such being is taking place.  But when I am in the company of those who are praying (and when they are doing so on their property or on their time when it is within their right and not an imposition or in an inappropriate manner), then I show respect by remaining silent, but not closing my eyes so as to mislead them into thinking I am praying. I have always done this. However, since coming to this realization about a natural practical role for ritual, I have taken to doing something else too.  Most of the time, group prayers lead by one person will include pleas that God help them to... (insert wise things to understand, focus on, or do here). When this happens, I use the words as a way to help me to focus on the same principles or ideals. I take that time to allow the priorities being invoked to come to the forefront of my mind. I still do not close my eyes but I have found that I indeed can get something out of the situation when I find myself in such crowds.  Of course, if the prayers are something strange like, "Lord help us to keep those homosexuals from marrying" that would be different, but I am not generally around such people.

Strod's article also reminded me of a Humanist Contemplatives Club gathering we had back in 2007. The topic of that discussion was also Humanist ritual. In that discourse, we came to a few conclusions.

1) We acknowledge that Humanists already engage in many rituals. These include various meetups, weddings, funuerals, baby namings, etc.

2) There seems to be a major distinction between rituals, based on why they are conducted. In one sense, you have the 'superstitious ritual' in which the practitioner believes these acts to be accomplishing something disconnected from the typical natural cause-and-effect we know of empirically. Examples include rain dances and prayer. The second sense of ritual is the 'symbolic ritual' in which the practitioner is conducting an activity in order to symbolize a concept. These rituals are designed to create a sense of solemnity, help us adjust our mindset and focus on the reasons behind the ritual, cement social interactions, and mark special events or notions. It was concluded quite easily that Humanist ritual must be exlusive to this latter form.

3) Future Humanist rituals should take advantage of the rich cultural lineage behind it. This includes elements of art, music, poetry, literature, and other elements by past Humanists or humanistic artists and thinkers. This should bring in a sense of tradition such that the ritual does not feel extraneous or contrived.

4) Rituals should be 'multisensory' experiences. They should tap as many of our senses as possible; having visual, audial, olfactory, and possibly tactile elements. Internally, they should tap both the intellect as well as the emotional, intuitive, and imaginative.

It was also mentioned that science fiction can be an inspiration for creative ideas. At the same time, a Humanist ritual must be something with real functional purpose - even if merely social or emotional - or else it will seem contrived.

I would recommend reading Deborah Strod's article. It is but one of many excellent articles appearing in The New Humanist lately and soon to come. In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that my own work will be appearing in the magazine soon. It is a magazine I'm proud to support because I think their take on Humanism and its future is right on course.

[Read: Should Humanists Do Ritual?]

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Godless billboard now in Houston

Many may have heard of the various Godless signs appearing on billboard and buses around the country. Starting today, they've come to Houston...

The Houston Freethought Alliance ( is an alliance of local secular organizations. These organizations include the Humanists of Houston, the Houston Church of Freethought, the Humanist Association of Montgomery County, the Atheists Meetup, and the Secular Center. Together, with funding from the national organization United Coalition of Reason, the billboard appears prominently at I-45 and 1960, near Ella Blvd.

The sign features a blue sky with clouds, and the words "Don't Believe in God? You are not alone" and includes the contact information for the Alliance.

This project is part of an active campaign to spread awareness of these organizations. Rather than criticizing others, the message here merely lets those who don't believe in a God know that there are others like them, and gives them a way to make contact with like-minded people if they choose.  In a world where the majority are theists, there are many people who feel rather alone in their atheism or agnosticism.

I personally don't find the God/no-God question all that important. I prefer Humanism not because of what I don't believe, but rather because it is about what I do believe. Humanist values are what's important to me, and that has to do with how we treat one another, being compassionate, and how we live our lives. I think we have a lot in common with our theist friends on those grounds. Having said that, it at least seems like the phrase "Don't Believe in God? You are not alone" is not a bad one.

The groups mentioned exist here in Houston for several purposes. Among them:
  • Providing a fellowship of like-minded people
  • Providing social get-togethers and fun events
  • Hosting intellectually stimulating speaking events and presentations on a number of issues from a naturalistic or nontheistic point of view
  • Helping to give a community support system to those who may not find churches something to which they can relate
  • Helping to connect people with secular celebrants who can conduct weddings, funerals, and other secular ceremonies
  • Doing charitable work in the community
  • Working to further education about naturalism, science, and reason
  • Working to support church/state separation and the rights of non-believers
Of course, there are many theists who find even the billboards as worded offensive or confrontational. In some other cities, similar billboards have already been vandalized more than once. It seems nontheists, merely by making themselves known, are seen as evil or beligerent by some, which is unfortunate.  Some of the billboards around the country say things like, "Good without God" or "Good for Goodness' Sake". The general message of all of them has simply been (a) to nontheists: that you are not alone and please contact us, and (b) to everyone else: people who don't believe in God can still be good people.

Fred Edwords, national director of the United Coalition of Reason said, "The point of our national billboard campaign is to reach out to the millions of humanists, atheists and agnostics living in the United States... Nontheists sometimes don't realize there's a community out there for them because they're inundated with religious messages at every turn. So we hope this will serve as a beacon and let them know they aren't alone."

But reaching out to nontheists isn't the only goal of the campaign. "Our message is also to let people know that we are part of the larger community,” added Noelle George, coordinator of the Houston Freethought Alliance. "We're your friends, neighbors, coworkers and family members. We're just like you except that we don't believe in a supreme being. Now we'd like the same opportunity as everyone else to be open about our views."

The United Coalition of Reason has launched a dozen advertising campaigns previously this year. Each involved billboards or public transit ads. They appeared in Boston, Massachusetts; Charleston, South Carolina; Chicago, Illinois; Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas; Des Moines, Iowa; Morgantown, West Virginia; Newark, New Jersey; New Orleans, Louisiana; New York, New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Phoenix, Arizona; and Portland, Oregon.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Public Service Announcement: global warming real

I'm going to dispense with attempts at eloquent writing today. I'm also not going to worry too much about whether this post falls properly under "religion & spirituality". In fact, it does. It does because when people have extreme difficulties thinking rationally, being aware of basic facts about their world, and knowing who are insane charlatans and who are not - it has an impact on one's spiritual progress. That's not to mention that it also effects how we behave, which is a matter of ethics and our well being. Thirdly, there are obvious religious motivations behind many distortions on this topic.  Today, my goal is simple. I am fulfilling my ethical duty to use this tiny little soapbox to make a formal announcement for those who may not be aware...

Yes - Global Warming is real.
Yes - Global Warming is effected by human activity.
Yes - Global Warming presents real and impacting dangers for our future.
Yes - We can work to do something about it, to at least some degree.
Yes - The above is backed by HUGE amounts of scientific data, across a wide spectrum of disciplines, confirmed by independent researchers, and currently represents the massive consensus of the scientific community

If you're wondering what precipitated this, there is a huge stir going on lately about some hacked emails of some climate change scientists in the UK. To hear the various popular lunatics on talk radio describe it, one would get the impression that all of global warming was a hoax and now it's all come crashing down. Radio entertainer Rush Limbaugh claims to actually believe that global warming is a massive "liberal" conspiracy designed to help them redistribute wealth. Several other similarly witted talk-radio entertainers have formed a small but overly-influential chorus along similar lines.

Well, turns out the emails are pretty much two main emails about very specific matters in very specific studies, not really impacting global warming in general, even if they were showing fraud. More importantly, they don't even actually show any fraud when you look at the real meanings and references of what they were talking about. What's happened is that very opportunistic people have taken some of the wording, which would happen to sound conveniently suspicious if you didn't know any of the context and held it up, misrepresenting it in order to convince people of a conclusion they already believed - that global warming is a conspiracy.  What is sad, is that real news channels (not just Fox) have picked up the story and this feeds into that impression. Now, the UN is even looking into the matter, and you've got quite a lot of people out there buying this nonsensical version of events.

Included in this article is an embedded video by a man named Potholer, who is a 20 year journalist and science correspondent and who makes a variety of quality educational videos about science for the public. This video will give you a quick rundown on the situation. I highly recommend reviewing it...

[See other videos by Potholer on climate change and science]

PS - While I'm at it: YES - we really went to the Moon, Evolution is real, 9/11 was not an inside job, and space aliens did not build the pyramids (or at least, there's no reasonable cause to suspect they did).

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Some basics on religious freedom

170 ft. Cross at Sagemont Church, Houston, TX.
(cc) Luna715,
According to a news article by AP, the Swiss seem to have just voted to affirm a policy of banning Islamic minarets, the onion-shaped towers commonly seen on mosques. The move comes as a right wing initiative in response to fears over the growing Muslim population in the area, and what is seen as possible unwanted cultural shifts in their society. The initiative's co-president Ulrich Schlueer said, "Forced marriages and other things like cemeteries separating the pure and impure — we don't have that in Switzerland, and we do not want to introduce it."

This reminds me of France's move to ban the Hijab head scarves in their public schools a few years ago. In both cases, I find these kinds of moves unfortunate and the result of fear - ironically, likely to only produce more fear, aggression, and isolation in the future.

Europe has a strong secular streak in its governmental system, and the United States, religious though it is, was remarkable specifically because of its secular constitution. Yet, there is definitely something different between the philosophies of American secularism and European secularism.

In Europe, the idea seems to be that the government is going to enforce secularism on the citizens to some extent. There are much more intrusive laws regarding so-called "cult" activities, laws against various symbols or forms of expression, and so on. Now, they're telling people not only what styles of buildings they can build on their own property, but what they can wear on their bodies. Secularists in Europe would be wise to keep in mind that it is not religion that is a threat, but rather certain elements found in fundamentalist religion, such as: intolerance, dogmatism, domination, ideology, unfounded beliefs, fear, paranoia, etc. Most importantly, they need to understand these traits can find their way into any human institution, including government. There have been several instances where 'political religions' have arisen in Europe and beyond, and when wielded with the vigor of a religious movement, the 'enforced secular state' is just as much a threat as any traditional religion.

In the United States, a secular government is as equally valued and important as in Europe. The wall of separation between church and state has been a foundational principle of our government since its inception. But, here, the perspective has some important differences. With American secularism, the emphasis is on the state being restricted - rather than the state doing the restricting. In other words, American secularism is about reigning in the power of the government. It's about telling the government that it cannot interfere in religious matters. Individuals are free to practice their religions, wear what they want, build the kinds of churches they want, and so on. This is all, provided they are not harming others. It is also provided assuming that religion does not try to infiltrate government, and thus use its power base as a way to extend the interests of any one faith. We have these sorts of legal issues come up all the time, where people will try to get their religious views mounted on court houses and so on. So, the wall is important, but my primary point here is that the main emphasis is on restricting the state.

For example, everyone knows the phrase "they took prayer out of schools" but what isn't often appreciated is this: they didn't tell students they couldn't pray. What they did was tell their own employees (the teachers - agents of the government) they they were not allowed to lead other people's children in prayer, because it was inappropriate for government employees to be doing that to free citizens. The same applied to the use of government property for the sake of evangelizing. The entire matter is about restricting the government from telling your children what religious practices they're going to follow. Children themselves are perfectly free to pray, and many student prayer groups meet on school grounds in appropriate times (with the same facilities made available for other interests as well).

In another example, when I was President of the Humanists of Houston, I was interviewed over the matter of several gigantic white crosses that have been placed around various entry highways into the city of Houston. These crosses have been placed on church properties around the city, with the intent being to give the impression that one is entering a 'Christian city' as they enter.

I told the interviewer that we certainly don't agree with the notion that this is exclusively a Christian city or that Christians should have some privileged position. We also didn't find the suggestive nature of the large icons to be tasteful or respectful. But then I said - however, the crosses are placed on private church property, and were paid for privately. As far as was known, no other building code violations or signage regulations had been violated. No one is obligated to be tasteful or respectful, and I have no right not to be offended. Therefore, the crosses are perfectly within the rights of those putting them up. The interviewer kept trying to goad me into saying something like, "they need to be banned" or that we were going to try and get the government to force them down or something. But I stood my ground that (a) we didn't care for the statement personally, but (b) it was within their rights.

There are a lot of places where I think the U.S. needs improvement, but when it comes to our take on secularism vs the European approach, I'm happy we seem to be on a better track. Europe is facing a lot of inter-cultural conflicts, fears, and other issues right now, and their reaction against religion will only stoke more. I hope instead they look more toward inclusion, but with a firm handle on foundational principles of religious freedom. There are some principles of individual liberty that should override raw numbers in a vote. If one maintains that, then one needn't fear Islamic law making its way into the system. Let people wear, say, and build what they want, and that same stance on individual human rights will be there to hold the gate when the pressure swings the other way. But without that foundation of individual liberty, no one is safe. If the Swiss have the numbers to pass such laws today, simply on the basis of mob rule - then I fear for them when the demographic proportions have turned around.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Humanist Contemplatives Houston Meetup report

Humanist Contemplative Emblem.
(cc) DT Strain.
Last night (11/25/09) a few of us came together at Borders Books & Music on Kirby, to discuss the contemplative life, the overlapping lessons and practices available from many different ancient philosophies, and make plans for a program of topics in the next year.

The program for the Humanist Contemplative Houston Meetup will begin at the ground level and build up from there. This means our first focus will be on the nature of reality. In this we will begin with a look at modern complex systems theory. Moving on from there, we will explore both the Taoist views of Nature and those expressed by Heraclitus. In this, we will look for the common threads to see what profound insights they can tell us about how the universe unfolds and how we can build productive perspectives around that reality, which will be conducive to a life of happiness.

The next step in our program will then be to move on to the connection between "what is", and how we approach life, or how best to live in the light of those realities. This will begin with exploring the mindsets, priorities, and perspectives of the Buddhists, the Stoics, and others. We'll look at how these perspectives, once deeply understood and intuitively grasped (beyond mere intellectual knowledge) can have a profound impact on our attitudes and approaches. Lastly, we'll look at the lifestyle implications of those approaches, namely ethics and practices.

This is a long-term plan for us, but it will give us a skeletal structure of concepts. What we want to do is bring everything to the table that humanity has to offer. So, rather than planning to study a specific philosophy, our skeleton is an outline of certain concepts (on the natural universe, its implications to value, how that effects lifestyle, and the pursuit of the flourishing life). It will then be open to us and all who attend to bring whatever philosophic takes on those concepts they can for comparison and contrast. One of us will be bringing in Native American views at some point for example.

We then looked at format and decided that the best structure for our monthly meetup (our "discourse") would be in three parts. The first part would be teaching-based, or the intellectual. Here we will share concepts from whatever sources we like. We don't want there to be 'homework' or required reading for this group, but we will have a heads-up on what will be discussed, some suggested reading, and so on. The idea is that we'll all have things to say and questions to offer from our own experiences of things we're already reading or have read, or that we hope to learn more about.  In other words, this exploration is to be done at the event itself, with others.  The second part of our discourse, will leave the academic and focus on the practical. In other words, we'll look each time at solid practices and behaviors which can either help us to instill these lessons on a deeper level, build habits, or have direct effects on our happiness and wellbeing. The third and last part of our discourses will be more personal in nature. Here we will move beyond hypothetical talk of either teachings or practices and speak with one another about our own personal lives. We'll share our challenges and plans in our path, giving and receiving encouragement or advice as needed.

For now, our entire program outline is very basic, but here is a flavor of the kinds of things we'll be looking at:

Humanist Contemplatives Discourse Schedule 

I. Complexity
An layman's conceptual overview of complex systems theory. Traits of complex systems such as self-emergence, bifurcation, autopoeisis, emergent properties, and more will be covered. The application and relevance of complexity to the many aspects of our world will also be examined.

II. Taoism & Heraclitus (East & West on Nature)
The writings of Heraclitus as he observed the changing flux of Nature are compared with Taoist conceptions of Nature, which recalls what we know about complex systems.

III. Chuang-Tzu & Stoic Ethics (Living with Complexity)
With an integrated modern-ancient conception of a complexity-based Nature in mind, we look at what implications that has for how we live our lives. In doing so, we compare the Taoist Chuang-Tsu's understanding of the implications, with the Stoic's understanding of 'living in accordance with Nature'.

IV. Stoic Physics
Moving beyond Heraclitus to full Stoicism. A more focused look at the universe as it exists in the traditional Stoic model. The nature of the passive and active, the Logos (Divine Fire), Stoic determinism and materialism, and more will be examined.

V. Buddhist Physics
We will look at what is really meant by the descriptions of reality given by core Buddhism in a naturalistic context. Some comparison will be made with Taoist descriptions.

VI. Stoicism, Taoism, Buddhism, & the Natural Universe
Bringing together the Stoic, Buddhist, and modern complexity-based physics - we will attempt to reach an understanding of the overlap and consistency between them.

VII. Value & Ethics, the Stoic/Buddhist good life
How different modes of description are possible, important, and equally valid depending on the communicative function needed. Overlap and contrast in the approach to life between different traditions is examined.

VIII. Humanism & ancient philosophy
With a grasp of ancient/modern physics/ethics as a whole, we will tie this back into Humanism, and explore its place in the Humanist worldview.

IX. Synthophy - the synthesis of global wisdom, modern science, and humanistic concern
The Five Synthophic Realms and the 20 Synthophic Precepts will be presented as a complete basis of natural spirituality, will be presented and discussed.

After planning these things, we also did a great deal of sharing and discussion of these ideas themselves. As such the evening was not merely planning but we seemed to get a lot out of it. The value of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT, heavily influenced by Stoicism) was shared, and we talked about anger issues, self judgment, and more. All in all, a very satisfying discourse.

Right now our group is very small in terms of actual attendance, and it will likely always be so, but if you would like to join us - you are certainly welcome. Our normal discourses will take place on the second Wednesday of each month, so that puts the next one on December 9, 2009 at 7:00pm. For location, details, and to sign up to receive ongoing information on this group, please visit sign up, and RSVP today!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Yes! Humanists celebrate the solstice

That time of year!
(cc) Rachel (AriCee),
It's that time of year again! Humanists, like those in many other traditions, do indeed celebrate around the time of the winter solstice. Why? Well, for one it's fun - but it's also important to have a special time of year where we call attention to fellowship, sharing, and the value of giving. Why not do it at a time of year when the weather is bad and people tend to be affected by that? Furthermore, attaching celebrations to natural events like solstices makes perfect sense for a people who have a naturalistic worldview, and a sense of awe at the natural universe (Humanists also celebrate World Humanist Day on or around the summer solstice).

In more logistical terms, it makes good sense to celebrate when the rest of our community is celebrating in similar ways, which of course affects work and business schedules and the like. This way, we can also join with non-Humanist friends and family in the celebration of those values of our various holidays which overlap and are compatible. These must have been similar concerns when early Christians decided that the pagan celebration of the solstice was a good time of year to celebrate the birth of their savior.

There are other names for the Humanist celebration around this time of year. One is called HumanLight, a fairly new term adopted by the American Humanist Association and some others. It's basically another name for the same concept, taking place technically on December 23rd. Many of these terms are still gelling together, but the celebration itself has been pretty broad and constant among Humanists. Here in Houston, the Humanists of Houston has been holding a Winter Solstice Celebration for many, many years. Over the years it has grown and has lately become an event shared with, and sponsored by, the family of organizations known as the Houston Freethought Alliance. So, without further ado, let me announce this year's 2009 Winter Solstice Party!

The Houston Freethought Alliance presents...
2009 Winter Solstice Party

Date & Time: December 12th, 2009 from 4:00 PM to 7:00 PM
Theme: Celestial Splendor

Location: Memorial Park Golf Club (click here for an online map)
1001 E Memorial Loop; Houston TX 77007

Food/Drink: Beck’s Prime Steakhouse will provide a rib eye steak, chicken, hamburger, hot dog, or veggie burger; plus unlimited sides, soda, and water for $18 per adult. Burgers and dogs for kids under 12 yrs old for $8/child. For menu details, check out ‘The Blowout’. Adult beverages will be available for purchase!
Please note –outside food and drink is not allowed!

Entertainment: We will have games for kids and our own Santa Claus! Please let us know the ages of kids attending when you RSVP. We will also be having a raffle/silent auction to raise funds for Camp Quest Texas! Check out the SECULAR Center website for a list of prizes!

Although the main purpose of this post is to announce the Winter Solstice Party, I would be silly not to acknowledge this as the day right before Thanksgiving. For those who are wondering, there isn't an official version of Thanksgiving for Humanists of which I'm aware. However, I think you'll find most Humanists celebrate it in some fashion, if for no other reason than that most of their surrounding culture, friends, and family do. But I'd like to take this paragraph to suggest to my Humanist friends that we should approach tomorrow with more than the love of Turkey. While we are non-theistic, it is also a good idea to have at least one time a year where we focus on gratitude. Not only is it a good opportunity to thank others in our lives for what they have done for us and what they mean to us, but it is a psychologically healthy practice to recall those things which are good in our lives, and for which we can have an appreciation. In that spirit, I'd like to wish everyone out there a happy Thanksgiving, and offer my sincere thanks to all those who take the time to read my babbling, and especially who have offered their comments and input!

Monday, November 23, 2009

How Houston's Rothko Chapel paintings illuminate

Rothko Chapel interior.
(c) Rothko Chapel.
For those who haven't had a chance to see the Rothko Chapel here in Houston, I'd highly recommend a visit. Located at 3900 Yupon near the museum district and Montrose area, it is a 'generic' chapel for those of any belief or tradition. Opened in the year of my birth, 1971, it's angular postmodern simplicity of design creates a space that is reverent, calm, and peaceful – an ideal place for meditation, contemplation, or simple quiet time. Many events from people of all traditions are held there. I was organizing a Humanist Contemplatives Club a year or so ago, and we would often meet there (I am currently beginning a new Humanist Contemplatives Meetup here in Houston, by the way, although we now meet elsewhere).

What I'm writing about today, however, are Mark Rothko's paintings which are presented inside the chapel space. These paintings are huge foreboding canvases which seem at first glance to be mere black panels. Upon further inspection one sees the varying shades within the darkness, and the different kinds of 'black' and different textures on the canvases – nevertheless, the overall impression of featureless darkness is unmistakable. One also will eventually notice the interesting relative sizes and positions of the canvases.

However, the overall impression leaves many perplexed. In the book The Rothko Chapel Paintings: Origins, Structure, Meaning by Sheldon Nodelman, the author writes:

“A strong component of the visitor's initial impression of the chapel is likely to be a sense of bafflement, of the inadequacy of one's available discursive apparatus to the experience one is confronting. This is no accident...”

Indeed, a friend of mine had just that reaction. He told me recently that he had been to the chapel and seen the paintings but that he “just didn't get it”. I tried to explain a little but found myself stumbling a bit, which is what inspired this article. Note that Nodelman wrote of this effect on viewers: this is no accident.

What do the paintings mean?

Atypically, the artist was allowed to have a say in the architectural layout of the space, so the paintings were specifically created as one with it. Therefore no one painting can be understood alone or apart from the architectural environment for which is was composed. The entire chapel is a unified statement.

The statement seems to be one of “darkness and impenetrability” that had become present in Rothko's work by the late 1950s. Rothko's own tumultuous life can be read about on Wikipedia, among other places. It describes the effect as “surrounding the viewer with massive, imposing visions of darkness”.

Over the six years of his life spent on this project, Rothko had a gradually growing concern for the transcendent (caution: that word doesn't mean the same thing to everyone). Nodelman writes that he told friends the Chapel would be his most important artistic statement. Initially, the chapel was to be Roman Catholic. It's octagonal shape was based on the Byzantine church of St. Maria Assunta. The format of canvases in threes recalls the common triptych arrangements of paintings of the Crucifixion. However, Rothko left out overt references, which created something more universal.

Rothko thought completing the paintings was “torment”. He said the result was to create “something you don't want to look at”. This makes me think of two spiritual practices, one from Stoicism and the other from Buddhism. In Stoicism there is a practice author William B. Irvine calls negative visualization (in his book, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy). In Buddhism, there is a meditation technique called “reflections on repulsiveness” (Patikulamanasikara), which includes things like dwelling on the image of bloated corpses.

But this dark and negative interpretation is only surface deep. Rothko himself nevertheless said that his intention was to “illuminate” the chapel with his paintings. For such “dark and impenetrable” paintings, Rothko's meaning could not have been literal. Rather, he no doubt was referring to another kind of illumination.

Slightly less negative is the notice that Rothko's paintings represent isolation, solitude, and hermeticism. Solitude, of course, can not only be beautiful, but a necessary component of spiritual exploration. Nodelman says, “The beholder experiences himself or herself as an infinitesimal speck in an immeasurably greater cosmic vastness...” For those who have read my previous article on the music of John Boswell and seen his videos, consider the elegant manner in which this vastness can be presented as inspirational and awe-inspiring. I am also reminded of another past article, in which I quote the Taoist Chuang-Tzu who said, “But now that you have emerged from your narrow sphere and have seen the great ocean, you know your own insignificance, and I can speak to you of great principles.” Indeed, this feeling of vastness is certainly generated by Rothko's paintings.

But let us not forget the obvious. The most notable thing about Rothko's work here is the complete removal of forms, or symbols, and of representation. Nodelman writes, “Most of the obvious features through which paintings have excited the imagination and interest of the viewer are studiously absent...” as if to say, this is not a place to come and be excited or entertained as you are so constantly assaulted by popular media on a constant basis.

At the dedication of the paintings, sponsor Dominique de Menil said, “We are cluttered with images and only abstract art can bring us to the threshold of the divine.” He referred to the paintings as an “impenetrable fortress” of color.

Nodelman continues, “The work seems to afford no point of imaginative entry; instead the frustrated viewer is thrown back upon himself...” as if to say, the answers you seek aren't to be found out here, in a painting or your external world – they are within you. Indeed, surrounded by this “impenetrable fortress” of paintings, the viewer is left with nowhere else to retreat than inward.

This stripping away of iconography makes me think of the story of the Buddha on Vulture Peak, who took a single flower and showed it to his followers. Everyone was silent as they tried to understand what the Buddha was communicating. One of his followers smiled and he gave him the flower saying, “I have the eye of the true teaching, the heart of Nirvana, the form of no form, and the ineffable stride of Dharma. It is not expressed by words, but especially transmitted beyond teaching.” In that story, the point is that our symbols, our language, and our icons that we use to categorize and label reality can be a filter that blocks our direct sensation of it. You can learn by simply witnessing the flower as it is, without labeling it or having preconceptions about it (as an artist, I can say this is a similar technique in learning to draw what you see, rather than what you think you see). A big part of Buddhist mediation is to learn to perceive things directly, without that filter of language or labels. By stripping away all iconography from his images, Rothko was making a similar statement – that the truth of reality and of conscious experience is something you can witness directly, not something to be labeled and categorized into iconic images, words, or other abstractions.

(On a side note then, how ironic it is that works such as these are called the 'abstract' art, rather than those that indeed use abstractions in the form of imagery to communicate their meaning.)

Nodelman notes that the idea of using large figures of inconceivable elegance and featurelessness is not new, pointing to the example of the pyramids at Giza. One can only imagine the awe and mystery such a site as the newly built smooth triangular structures, vast on the horizon, must have instilled in the minds of ancient Egyptian subjects.

It recalls in my mind that strange feeling you get when first glimpsing the monolith in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Here the monolith represents something so primal, so universal, and so mysterious that were it to be anything but stubbornly absent of features we might investigate or think about further, the image would have been diminished in its power and breathtaking contrast to its surroundings.

Like the monolith, ancient and primal, Rothko's chapel strips away all of the contrivances which have been built up by human religions and attempts to access that core sense of experience upon which it all began – upon which all forms of spirituality, religion, ritual, tradition, and practice have referenced. This, it could be said, is that element of wonder, mystery, and awe shared by all religions. Nodelman says, “Rothko was a professed unbeliever who rejected all confessional orthodoxy or dogmatic constraint. But he also understood himself to be confronting, in his paintings, universal issues of human destiny that could only be described as religious.”

A musician by the name of David Donfero has written a song about Rothko Chapel. In his lyrics he sings:

But there's this place in Houston Texas, seems like the perfect church to me
reminds me of your heart and how comforting a cold black void could be...
my religion is in nature, art and literacy
my religion is in science, music and poetry
my religion is the mountain, my church is the seas
my religions is to love you yet my church is entropy
my religion is in your eyes but my church ain't organized

[Link: Listen to Rothko Chapel, by David Donfero]

[Link: See a virtual panorama of the Rothko Chapel interior]
Warning, this doesn't do justice than the feel you get walking into the space in person!

On a final note, I would be remiss not to mention another wonderful work of art just in front of the Rothko Chapel building, called the Broken Obelisk by Barnett Newman, which sits in a reflecting pool designed by Philip Johnson. The obelisk is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and is a wonderful piece of art. But that is another story :)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Thoughts on spirituality

"El ojo" (cc) Pepe Lahuerta
picazo (Pepelahuerta),
Once in a while, when reading, thinking, or hearing some concept or idea, we can have those thrilling moments that send a tingle down our back. Epiphany would certainly be a good example, but simply very touching, interesting, or intriguing ideas can also generate the feeling. This feeling I consider a form of profound spiritual experience, and it is one of the things that drive my philosophical explorations. I had one today.

Today was listening to A Spiritual Journey by Ram Dass, in which he discusses finding our spiritual path. Now, before continuing, since this is a Humanist blog I should mention that Ram Dass holds a lot of beliefs regarding the supernatural that I do not. Yet, one of the things I try to promote in my work is the idea that we should explore what wisdom we can in all kinds of sources, and be tolerant when we come across bits and pieces that don't necessarily jive with our own views. If we do not recoil, we may find wisdom that is useful to us even within in a different worldview. This is the central essence of the approach I call Synthophy (the wisdom of bringing together good ideas). My wife recommended the audio book to me after listening to it herself, and although I haven't finished it, I suspect it will have much to say that I find relevant in my own spiritual naturalist path.

Dass was saying that people originally awaken to a spiritual dimension in their life in a wide variety of ways: traumatic experience, meditation, religious experience (or what I call profound experience), sex, drugs, etc. He said once back in the early 70s he was giving a lecture and at the time most of his audiences were very young, often wore white and flowers and beads, and tended to smile a lot. In the front row was a woman about 70 years old, dressed in conservative clothing and a hat with fake cherries and strawberries on it. During his lecture he kept looking at her because she seemed so dissimilar from others in his audience. He began to describe some experiences and some of them were "pretty far out" as he put it. But the woman surprisingly was nodding, as though she were understanding. So Ram Dass continued and his subject matter went even further into drug induced or other "far out" experiences. However, the woman kept nodding as though she understood and he soon began to wonder if she simply had a neck condition. After the show, the woman came over to him thanked him saying it made perfect sense and that was just how she understood the universe to be. He asked her, "How do you know? What have you done in your life that has brought you into those kinds of experiences?" Ram Dass says the woman "leaned in very conspiratorially and said, 'I crochet'". At that moment he realized that the ways in which people can reach spiritual understanding were more wide than he suspected. He noted that a common illness people get into in spiritual work is to think their way is the only way.

Dass also mentioned that often when we undertake a spiritual journey, we begin to get the sense that what we thought were the parameters of life were really just something like a prison. That we are imprisoned by our culture, by our preconceptions, and several other things, and we begin to want to break out of that. That is a process of beginning to 'see through the veil' of common understandings to look for deeper things. The first step in this process is recognizing that we are, in fact, imprisoned.

This made me think of something that may be a personal breakthrough in my efforts to be more disciplined. It has the prerequisite of mindfulness, but if we can be aware of the onset of a temptation - say, for example, hunger, the temptation not to perform a task, sexual temptation, etc - then we can think of it as follows...

The Stoics thought of people as being a slave to their passions. Some would even call people they spoke to 'slave' for none of us are truly free. This is the same as the prison concept mentioned by Ram Dass. If, when we feel such a temptation setting upon us, we recognize it having just bumped up against a wall in our prison, this may give us the gumption to resist it further. By seeing the temptation, not as a path to fulfilling a desire, but as one of many walls enslaving us to our desires and keeping our rational minds from being in charge, we may have a bit of rebelliousness of attitude. This might give us just enough urge to overcome the desire more often.

One last thought for the day on another matter...

On my drive to work, I passed a dog which had been killed in the road, no doubt by a vehicle. It was not one of those cases where it looked like a quick flash of something, but one where I could clearly see the dog's face up close for an extended period. In the first half-second I was hit with a feeling of sadness, recognizing the pathos, I shifted my focus from an emotional reaction and toward a sense of duty to take a mental moment to reflect with reverence for the life lost instead. Taking such a moment reminds us of the value of life, but also sets us on course to recall larger lessons. I recalled that all things live and die in their own time as part of an ever-changing flux, and that through this flux is made possible all things. With that, I allowed this grand sense to wash over me, and the dog's fate came to rest in its proper perspective. We can hope he did not suffer long before death but there are no doubt countless beings experiencing death, as well as life, around us all the time. We should have compassion in this larger sense for all beings, but 'big minds' should not be so puppeted by the tiny spectrum of sights and sounds glimpsed randomly at any passing moment by our immediate senses. To this we should stay mindful.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

AHA president visits Houston & other news

Downtown Houston. (cc) @Hella,

Last night I was pleased to meet Roy Speckardt, president of the American Humanist Association. He was visiting to meet some local people who were active in the freethought and Humanist community here in Houston and I was happy to be among them. We talked for a while about what's been going on in the AHA and what's been happening here in Houston. Later we continued the discussion over dinner. Roy is a nice fellow who was eager to share with us AHA's latest projects which include helping local areas get billboards (Houston's will be going up soon), working for the rights of Humanists, and building bridges with other freethought organizations nationally and locally. We also discussed how one sums up 'Humanism' to those who may be unfamiliar with it - issues such as how much detail to go into in a quick summary, and how much we emphasize the non-theistic aspects in comparison to aspects of caring for humanity and our world. I wish I had more time to converse with Roy on the overall direction of the Humanist movement, outreach strategies, and more. However, I did get a chance to tell him about my work, these articles at Examiner, and my website, The Humanist Contemplative. He seemed interested in the issue of exploring contemplative thoughts and practices within a Humanist framework, and I think more communication on this would be interesting. I also got a chance to mention my recent efforts at accumulating a central resource for Humanist blogs and will be following up with him soon on this. All in all, it was a brief but welcome visit we all seemed to enjoy and find productive.

Two other quick items of interest:

The multitalented English actor/writer/director/comedian Stephen Fry has recently won an award for his Humanism and long standing support for gay rights, from the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association (GALHA). Fry was happy to accept the award on behalf of "those who want to stand up and be counted as proud of their sexuality and secularity." My first awareness of Stephen Fry came in his role as Deitrich in the 2005 film V for Vendetta. In that film, he played the role of a television producer who had to keep his sexuality secret in a fascistic future world where homosexuality was one of many forbidden activities. I hadn't realized at the time that he was also involved in the British television series Blackadder, which I have enjoyed. Fry's other involvements are very numerous, and he seems to be a great asset to both Humanism and LGBT rights. Thanks to PinkNews for making me aware of this.

Meanwhile, Susan Campbell at the Hartford Courant has written a very nice article on positive Humanist beliefs and Humanist Chaplain at Harvard Greg Epstein. The piece reminds me of one with a similar message I wrote a few years ago regarding the word believer: I Am A Believer. Campbell's article is eclectic, bringing together everything from the recent Ft. Hood shooting, to religion trends in America, to the founding fathers, and turning the other cheek - and it's short to boot - so I'd recommend it. [LINK: No God Doesn't Mean No Beliefs]

Friday, November 13, 2009

Charter for Compassion unveiled

Karen Armstrong.
(c) Charter for Compassion.
On Thursday, November 12, 2009, the Charter for Compassion was unveiled - a statement calling for greater compassion, and greater application of the golden rule, throughout the world. It was a statement both from and to people of all religions and no religion. The charter was composed over many months, through a process that began on February 8, 2008.

It was then that former nun, author, and religious historian Karen Armstrong won the Technology, Entertainment, & Design (TED) prize for her presentation. In the presentation, Armstrong called for a renewed commitment to compassion, and expressed her wish to begin a process to formulate a charter for compassion drafted with multi-faith input, and to promote it. By December 18, 2008, over 150,000 people from over 180 nations had submitted suggestions for the charter, and the 'Council of Conscience' began using this input to draft the charter. The council was composed of 18 influential religious figures from multiple faiths and nationalities.

The Charter for Compassion
A call to bring the world together

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others—even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.

We therefore call upon all men and women ~ to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.

We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensible to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.

Events at houses of worship and other locations were held all over the world to celebrate the unveiling of the charter, and people are invited to go to the website and also help spread the charter through their own action. People may also sign up to follow news of the charter to see how it progresses.

Charter for Compassion website
TED presentation by Karen Armstrong

As I believe the core of Humanism is compassion, I applaud these efforts and hope the charter can eventually have a profound impact on our overall direction. I have signed up to get further news on the charter and submitted my name as a supporter. Over 10,000 people have already done the same.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Human & animal gene mixing, a Humanist perspective

100% pure kitty here, no human DNA required.
(cc) fofurasfelinas,
Reuters reported this week that scientists are seeking a debate on the ethics of mixing human DNA with animal DNA for research purposes. Of course, the first thing some of us think of is H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau - the story of the mad scientist who was creating half-man-half-beasts of various sorts. In reality, the issue is a little more mundane. It involves things like giving research animals human forms of diseases so they can study cures; mice livers with human cells to study the effects of drugs on the livers; or using animal eggs to help breed human stem cells. One involves animal-human embryos which would be destroyed rather than fully matured.

Still, that is enough to warrant serious ethical consideration. I cannot speak for all Humanists, whose opinions on such a complex matter will no doubt vary considerably. But I can speak for myself, and talk about why my position springs from my own Humanist values.

First, I begin with a very broad fundamental principle. In this case, the idea of what is 'special' about being human. Having no belief in souls or the like, one would think I'd be left with nothing but atoms, DNA, and so on. Thus, one might imagine my definition of 'human' to be the biological species called Homo sapiens. Not so.

Surely, the thing that makes human beings special is not that we have two arms, two legs, and so on. Our genes and our very bodies and brains are simply matter - not of much significance. Rather, even the naturalist must acknowledge the significance and existence of the metaphysical. By that, I don't mean supernatural, but rather those things which are not merely physical objects. In this case, we're talking about patterns, and functions, and emergent properties of those objects in accordance with how they interrelate to one another - and the appropriate value judgments we place on those properties for our own well being as a people.

The human mind is a process. It is a process which allows for the conception of ideas, memories, the capacity to make choices, and the capacity to imagine and form high level concepts. Importantly, it also shares with lesser minds the capacity to experience the first-person sensation of suffering. While this process emerges thanks to the activity of particles, it is more than merely the atoms that make up the brain; it is that process and the capacities of that process which are of significance and of moral concern. More than atoms, proteins, DNA, tissues, or the human animal; the human mind - is - the human being.

It is with this perspective that I am not opposed to first trimester abortions. There is simply not a human mind present, and certainly not before the brain activity that allows the process of mind. Consistently, I am also not opposed to 'unplugging' a body being kept alive by machinery which has no brain. Also, consistently, were we to ever discover an extra-terrestrial non-human intelligence, I would consider it more kin to us than to the other creatures with whom we share this planet and biological relation. It is with this moral and ethical focus on the "person" over the biology, that I approach the issue of human/animal hybrid research.

Proceeding thus, I can say that I have no problem with anything that is created, even a Moreau-like monstrosity, provided it is destroyed before complex brain activity develops. Before a 'person' has emerged, it is no more significant than any other clump of mindless tissue. If such a thing produces helpful knowledge that will cure the sick or heal the injured, then so be it - provided strict and enforced precautions are taken that it not be developed.

And, what of creatures that are developed fully? Here we must be careful that the type of hybridization is not philosophically or morally significant with respect to personhood. For example, should a mouse have a liver that contains some human liver cells, this should be of little concern. Or, conversely, should a human have a pig's heart this too is simply a matter of equipment and machinery.

But, it is important to note that there are still many things which we do not understand about the working of genetics. What specific genes allow for the development of a nervous system with human-level awareness? Could it be that one important ingredient for that is hiding out in an area of the DNA sequence we currently believe handles only the metabolism or the liver? We must be extremely cautious here, or else we might conceivably create some animal which has human-level awareness, or something disturbingly close to it. Far from some cartoonish talking gopher, we might not be able to communicate with such a creature well enough to even realize what we had created. If the gene mixtures begin to affect the cognition of the creature, we begin to enter serious ethical territory in the creation and treatment of such a being. Like the ETs I wrote of, this sort of creation would be our kin in ways more significant than its physical appearance, and experimentation on such a being would be unthinkable.

So, when it comes to those creatures brought to full term, I would advise very strict oversight and enforcement and proceeding with extreme caution. We must also make certain that such oversight bodies are not tainted with profit-motive or influence from profit-seeking entities. We should also seek to instill into any current accepted policies against human experimentation, provisions which account for 'human related cognition' in the definitions used.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Symphony of Science inspires

Scene from "We Are All Connected".
(c) PBS.
I've recently become aware of the wonderful work of musician John Boswell, thanks to a tweet from the American Humanist Association's twitter page (americnhumanist). Boswell is currently engaged in what he calls Symphony of Science. In this project, he writes pieces of music and applies as lyrics the interesting and inspiring quotes from scientists such as Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, and Stephen Hawking. He uses their original voices but alters the pitch to be melodic with the music. It's not meant to be a realistic simulation of singing, but has an electronic pitch to it, which is fitting for the slightly techno-style musical backdrop - reminiscent of the technological, and thus the scientific.

What is so great about Boswell's work is not the technical aspects, but how he uses music to communicate the awe at the topics being discussed. In his renditions, Boswell captures the feel one can have listening to scientists such as these. The profound experience we can have as we explore the wonders of the universe are stunning and it is refreshing to see music like this capture it emotionally. Surely, this will be an excellent tool in communicating the beauty of the universe as revealed by science.

See video: A Glorious Dawn
See video: We Are All Connected
Update (11/23/09) New Video: Our Place in the Cosmos

You can learn more about Boswell's project at as well as sign up to his mailing list, download MP3s of these songs, and contribute your support for the project. Let's hope he creates more!

This is my spirituality...

Monday, November 9, 2009

Stuart Kauffman proposes creativity as God

Stuart Kauffman
Stuart Kauffman is known as a biologist and complex systems researcher. He was a key figure at the Santa Fe Institute, a multi-disciplinary research center founded to explore the subject of complex systems across a broad spectrum of subjects.

Learn more: The Big Deal About Complexity

In a video at, Kauffman discusses one of his more recent ventures, which he has outlined in his book, Reinventing the Sacred. You may wish to view the video (link) before proceding, but it isn't necessary to understand what follows.

Kauffman is basically making the case that (a) natural law doesn't apply to some things and (b) we therefore need more than reason as our guide in life. Also, that (c) we should hence consider God to be, not a creator - but the more abtract concept of the creativity inherent in the universe (the universe's innate tendency toward emergent complexity - a counterpart to the 2nd law of thermodynamics, or entropy). As such, we should then (d) consider the creations of nature sacred and not destroy life or the ecosystem needlessly.

I appreciate that Kauffman sees his thesis as being a much needed natural basis of ethical direction, but I think he has misapplied some concepts and missed some logical problems. To be fair, I have not read his entire book (it is on order).

In his video, he speaks of the evolution of swim bladders in some fish. He notes how they began as lungs and by getting some water in them, developed the new function of regulating buoyancy. He says that no "law" could have been described that would dictate the evolution of swim bladders because we don't know the vast parameters of possibility. Therefore, such a thing is unpredictable - we cannot possibly do as Newton advised. That is, we cannot picture the universe as a billiard table, and calculate the trajectory of all the particles (billiard balls), and know what will happen simply on that basis. He thinks this to be an argument against reductionism.

In a book by M. Mitchell Waldrop, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos (a book I very much admire and which largely affected the course of my life), it is explained how some complex systems are such that one cannot possibly, even in hypothetical theory, calculate the future course of the system, because there is no method which will get us the answer faster than the 'calculation' of the system playing out itself. Therefore, these systems are practically unpredictable. I can certainly understand this notion, but Kauffman seems to suggest lately that this is somehow a blow to determinism.

Yet, the determinist (and reductionist) argument has never been that it is possible in principle for Homo sapiens to ever actually know the future of all systems by calculation. It's hard to imagine this is what Newton meant in his analogy either.

Kauffman plays fast and loose with some concepts in a way that displays a scientific background is not quite the same as a philosophic one. He casually and subtly glides between the concept of whether or not something can be described by natural law, and whether or not it is, in fact, operating according to some natural law. This is ironic, given that one would expect scientists to be more precise, but I have seen this tendency in scientists before, whenever they wander outside their labs and come over to play with the philosophers. Many in the sciences tend to look at philosophy as 'fuzzy' and think philosophy is a playground they can let their hair down a little. In such cases they misunderstand philosophy.

Kauffman may not have done that. Rather, his mistake here could also be attributed to the scientific principle that if something cannot be measured, then it can be said not to exist. Yet, even as a naturalist and supporter of empirical methodology, I know this to be a necessary but mere constraint of the scientific process. To adapt it as a larger philosophical stance leads to some ludicrous results.

Back to swim bladders...

When Kauffman speaks of the development of swim bladders, or hearts, etc. he does not seem to realize that he is speaking in the abstract. As if to call upon Plato's concept of the 'ideal form' of the swim bladder. A physicist can get away with this because any Proton is the same as any other. Nevertheless, there are no abstract ideal forms on Newton's billiard table. Everything is a specific instance, and when Newton speaks of law yielding the results of the system, he is speaking of the specific results of every particle in the universe, each individually calculated.

As the Buddhists would tell us, the notion that there are 'swim bladders' is in many ways a delusion. It is a label we have chosen to apply to similar patterns of particle where we notice them. Newton does not suggest that, by using the laws of motion on individual particles, we can predict the outcome of these disembodied 'conceptual patterns of the mind' spoken of as though they were one universal thing.

Kauffman says that things like hearts and swim bladders are real, in the sense that they have consequences, and that the physical adjacency and interrelated pattern of things making up these emergent forms is relevant. This may refer to a notion in complex systems theory whereby, it is not only true that individual interactions of elements in a system lead to emergent properties (like heat, rigidity, pressure, density, possibly even consciousness, etc), but those properties can then come back to affect the individual interactions, other emergent properties, or things outside the system in ways not possible without the emergent property.

Yet, were the universe to be one gigantic computer simulation, things like swim bladders would surely nevertheless emerge, and calculation would show this to be so - admittedly in a statistical sense given quantum indeterminacy. Complex system's own simple computer simulation for showing how emergent complex systems arise out of random pools of interaction is called the "game of life". Indeed, it often generates, out of the chaos, a moving pattern on the screen called a "glider". As with swim bladders, here we have a repeating form to which we can give a universal name. Nevertheless, each instance of it comes about because of specific mathematical operations of adjacent units interacting with one another according to the game's three simple laws.

One of those ludicrous results of equating the real with the measured? - Imagining that facts somehow magically change when the patterns become too complicated for us to calculate or predict - yes, even in principle.

If we cannot specify what will happen next, it does not mean that what happens next is not dependent upon what happens now, and therefore, no reason to say it is "beyond natural law" if by "beyond natural law" one means, "outside objective natural laws of the universe". If, on the other hand, Kauffman's phrase, "beyond natural law" means it is beyond the ability of human beings to formulate a natural law and add it to the body of human-listed natural laws, then this may be true, but also unextraordinary.

Kauffman says:

"...the dream that everything that unfolds in the universe is describable by law, looks like it's not true... this overturns everything"

However, "is describable by" is the operative phrase here. This does not mean that everything that unfolds in the universe does not do so according to natural laws, which we may be unable to describe. If that is the case, then it simply means that human beings are limited in their conceptions - a widely acknowledged truism and therefore, in fact, overturns nothing. Kauffman continues:

"If we don't know what's going to happen... then reason... is an insufficient guide for living our lives. It means that we need reason, emotion, intuition, allegory, metaphor... to manage to live our lives as full human beings"

I agree we need these other things to "live our lives as full human beings" but I would not say that these things are additional "guide[s] for living our lives". Rather, Reason is the only guide for living our lives we have. It is true that it is 'insufficient' if by 'sufficient' we mean 'enough to do everything perfectly'. However, the basic reality in which we find ourselves, simply means we don't have what we need to do everything perfectly and take every correct course without failure. Reason, thus, is an insufficient guide, but the best guide we have. The other items listed by Kauffman are not competing alternate guides, nor are they even additional guides. They are other qualities with different purposes than guiding life. They provide the spice, enjoyment, and fulfillment in life - but nothing about them shows them to be a guide. There is nothing about emotion or intuition or metaphor which has shown itself to help the businessman know where to allocate his resources with greater accuracy than reason (to use Kauffman's example). There is nothing about these qualities which shows them to be superior to reason in overcoming our lack of knowledge of "what will happen next". Indeed, there is not even an indication that these qualities add to reason, further enhancing ability to overcome the lack of knowledge of what is to come. Surely, emotion, intuition, etc are important qualities for other reasons, but Kauffman attempts to fill in the gaps in Reason's abilities with other qualities which do not share its function or best purpose.


Kauffman seems to suggest that an inability to describe things in terms of natural law and an inability to know the future allows for a creativity in the universe, or a creative force of some sort. However, I do not see how (a) this Creativity doesn't exist even in a reductionist universe that acknowledges emergent properties, or (b) why the lack of being able to predict or calculate an outcome allows for such a Creativity whereas otherwise it would not. I'm perfectly willing to acknowledge the creative "force" of organization in the natural 'way the universe operates' - in fact, I enthusiastically embrace this phenomenon with a sense of awe and wonder. But I do not see predictability or describability in any way relevant to that quality.

Kauffman suggests we can choose to call that creativity "God" instead of a creator being. From this, we derive that the creations (life and the planet) of that natural God are sacred and we should protect them. Although I share his ending point, there are several problems with how he gets there.

Yes, we can choose what we will apply the "God" label to. However, we also choose that "that which is created by a God is sacred". We can just as easily choose, directly, to apply the label of "sacred" to life and the planet. This, in fact, makes even more sense because were we to apply it to the "creations of a natural God" that would include disease and an eventual lifeless planet. There would be nothing more or less Godly or creative about creating a burning cinder of a planet than creating a flourishing life-filled planet, or about a thriving Homo sapiens as opposed to an extinct Homo sapiens. They would all be part of this natural God's creativity. Thus, with the choice to apply the God label and the choice to say that God's creation is sacred both being subjective and ultimately self serving in nature, there is no reason not to simply be direct and assign the sacred label to life and the planet because it is what serves humanity best.

Having written this, I have a great deal of respect for Kauffman's work and his aims. I will surely read his book and give these thoughts more consideration.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The little moments

US Flag at half mast.
In the aftermath of the tragic shooting at Ft. Hood this week, and the revelation that the shooter comes from a Muslim background, many American Muslims are left wondering whether there will be backlashes - whether other Americans, fueled by anger and fear, might retaliate against innocent Muslims. Although Muslims in America are renouncing the shooter's actions and expressing condolences for those harmed, it unfortunately seems to be a distinct possibility, in a society of over 300 million, that something of this nature will happen somewhere.

This is similar to the time just after 9/11 when, as I recall, there were similar incidents of backlash against Muslims in the U.S. In both of these cases, I was reminded of an incident that happened one night when I was a college student. It was, by all outward indications, a minor incident - but one of those little things that stick with you, that make an impression, and that you never forget.

I was in college during the first Gulf War, when everyone was glued to their television sets watching it unfold on CNN. It was during this 100 day period that I was alone one evening and wanted to do something other than watch the news for a change. I decided to walk down to the student center, where there was a game room and other things to do. No one was around, except for two women who were heading up to the front door of the building at about the same time as me.

I probably did notice their heads were covered with scarves (hijab), but didn't really connect it to what I'd been watching on the news the past several days. I may have simply been thinking about what video game I was going to play. Nevertheless, my normal 'instinct' to open the door for a lady kicked in and I held it open for them and smiled as they entered.

The next thing I knew, the woman had turned to me and with emotion in her face began to thank me for treating her and the other woman so kindly. She said that they love America, but had been treated rudely by others since the war broke out. She said people would often turn away from them and so on - and that it was refreshing to be treated like human beings by someone.

I'm not sure what I said, but tried to accept their thanks in a friendly way. I didn't deserve the praise they were giving me - I was just a stupid kid from a tiny homogeneous southern town who was too ignorant to have even appreciated what women like these might have been going through. I can say, at least, that I didn't have animosity for them, but I can't take credit for having considered those of other cultures and made some monumental decision to treat them with dignity - rather, was little more than simply being oblivious and acting by habit.

But the incident took me by surprise and made a deep impact on me. Sometimes, we stumble into certain roles society expects of us, and when we're praised in that direction, it makes us want to earn it.  This was like one of the millions of little incidents that go into making up who we are. They give us a certain impression of the world, help form our perspectives, and help to form who we become. From that point on, any time I saw a situation that might inspire anger against "those kind of people" I think of the two women I saw that night, who felt isolated in a country they had loved.

Does that mean I'm not thinking of those lost and injured, or their families? We should try to keep all innocent victims in mind here, but I hope we will not confuse care for victims with hatred for others.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Rihanna and "love"

Rihanna. (c) AP.
AP Reported today that the popular singer Rihanna has been interviewed following an incident where her boyfriend, another singer named Chris Brown, beat her. After the incident, Rihanna returned to Brown but has since said she is ashamed that she did this. She said that she realized that a lot of girls and young women will see her and that it sends a terrible message to them. She said she had fallen so far in love, and it was so unconditional, that she returned despite his treatment of her. She told young women not to "react off of love".

Whatever her situation or motivations, it is good that she's saying these things because a lot of young women are indeed inspired by popular figures like Rihanna. But I wanted to take this time to look at the concept of love as Rihanna has described its role in this situation.

Modern English provides us with the word 'love' which we English-speakers use for a lot of things. Other languages, and certainly ancient Greek, were and are more sophisticated - differentiating between all of the varieties of love. Here are some the ancient Greeks used:

  • Agape - A very general sort of affection and high regard. This can apply to a spouse, one's children, or even food. Presumably the regard we have for our favorite movies would be included.
  • Eros - Passion and sensual desire. Sexual attraction. Infatuation based on beauty - Plato even included our desire for beauty in art.
  • Philia - The love of friendship. This is a virtue-based love that includes loyalty to family, friends, and one's society. Incidentally, this is from the same philo root as in the word philosophy (the love of wisdom).
  • Storge - Close affection, trust, and familiarity like we have with family. This sort of love is such that we tend to put up with our family members' bad behavior.

    So, with this finer scalpel, lets look again at Rihanna's situation...

    What kind of love does/did she have for Brown? Certainly, Eros must have existed (I admit to some Eros for Rihanna myself), but sexual attraction alone doesn't seem to be the usual motivation for women seeking to stick with men that abuse them. It's ironic, but she may not have held Brown in 'high regard' (Agape) at that point. You know those love interests you 'love to hate'? Tumultuous relationships often include very low Agape, but very high Eros or other loves. But Agape is the most general and weak of motivations, easily overpowered by others. She probably hadn't been with Brown long enough to have Storge. Storge is the kind of love usually only known by parents or spouses who have been together in a trusting relationship for many years. In many ways it could be considered the deepest form of love. But when we think of loyalty and friendship (Philia) this seems to be the element we hear abused women speak of. They'll say things like, "he's the only friend I have", "he's the only one who knows me", "I couldn't find another like him", and so on. The old country western song Stand By Your Man comes to mind.

    Loyalty is a tricky subject in ethics. It is perhaps the easiest virtue to pervert, and requires wise comprehension of surrounding virtues to keep it in its correct context. You will find similar distortions of loyalty in the 'ethical codes' of gangsters, warlords, and thugs. What human beings long for is that deepest of connections - an unconditional love of Storge. But this is a difficult thing to develop because it involves a familiarity and trust that is hard to come by. So often, when we lack that family love, what happens is that Philia is distorted to act as a "stand-in" for Storge. In these cases, we confuse the loyalty of Philia with the tolerance of Storge.

    Loyalty is only a virtue insofar as the thing to which one is loyal is virtuous. Being loyal to a gangster, a warlord, an unethical company, or an abuser is not virtuous. Loyalty, then, properly exists through a filter and presumption of a shared association to the good. But when people are looking for that deeper sense of belonging, acceptance, and love, they will elevate the importance of loyalty as a cheap substitute. When we have Storge for a family member, we will tend to be more tolerant and forgiving toward them when they step out of line. This is mispercieved as the 'loyalty' of Philia when in fact it is something else entirely.

    So, when Rihanna asks young women not to "react off of love", what she really means is that we should not react off of Philia. Don't let your sense of commitment and loyalty distort what you know to be right, or trump other more important forms of love. So, really, when Rihanna left Brown, she did react off of love - but off of Storge for herself, and off of a less distorted form of Philia to her society (or the young women in that society).

    It is strange, but so often true, that when we cannot find enough love for ourselves to do what's best, that we can instead be motivated by our compassion for others. Rihanna should preferably have enough love for herself that she leaves Brown, but in thinking of the effect of her actions on other young women, she says she found the extra motivation to do what was right. This is not unlike the person who abuses themselves by living recklessly and irresponsibly, until they have a child. The child often saves such people, giving them the motivation to straighten up.

    Although any cause to help someone do the right thing is always welcome, ideally what we should be aiming for is not a love of self that puts our needs selfishly first as in many interpretations of Objectivism, and also not a love for others that makes a sacrifice of ourselves, as Objectivism admonishes. Rather, as I prescribe in the practice of Existential Deliberation, the task is to think, perceive, and love without bias. As the Buddha might say, we should expand our loving-kindness to everyone and... that includes ourselves - respected and loved as a person with equal worth. For those who may have difficulties in this, I'd invite them to spend some time with themselves and open up to that person as you would a friend. I invite you to fall in love with yourself!

    Let's hope the same for Rihanna.